A Theology for Political Engagement in the Church: Part 2

We continue, today, in looking at a theology of welcome based on an idea of political engagement in the church. Today’s topics will include an analyzation of the problem, and a historical review of the problem. A reminder that I do not intend to cover every potential historical issue that has ever came up in political discussions with the church. The purpose was to give a broad overview to indicate this is not a recent problem.

Analyzation of the Issue

After looking at the problem and considering two potential groups that are affected by our acts of vehement disagreement with the other in the realm of political thought, it is right to analyze this issue on a deeper level. To do so, the issue of political disagreement has to be framed in its proper context. We cannot analyze this issue from merely political standards of what is right and ethical in an election year, but from Christian ideals of hospitality, welcome, and embrace. To do so requires an analysis of the problem by seeing how attacking the other, simply because of what they may believe, rejects one’s humanity and, ultimately, excludes them from any form of community.

So what is taking place when Christians taken on the image of the secular world and express personal attacks and innuendos based on what someone may believe? On the first level, Christians who partake in political attacks based on what someone may believe ignores the worth and the humanity of the other.

Words that we would never use to describe the homeless, the Haitian refugee, or the poor often freely flow from our lips when we debate someone whom disagrees with our basic political position. Those whom we disagree with are called “liars” and “evil.”

In our hearts, we question how one can be fully Christian and articulate such “un-Christian thinking.” We ignore Paul’s belief that we are all “one in Christ Jesus,” a belief that takes us on the path to recognize there should be nothing in terms of our political thinking which separates us from the communion with fellow Christians.

When Christians resort to name-calling and attacking the other simply for the way they believe, it is a form of nonrecognition. We do not recognize the worth of the other’s position and the possibility someone could come up with a line of thought different than the reasoning we have established to be right, accurate, and Christian. Miroslav Volf writes that nonrecognition damages the identity one receives because our identity is shaped and molded by the reception we receive from society.

He adds that nonrecognition “can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”

When we attack the other simply because a Christian may hold conservative or liberal political thoughts, we commit a form of oppression by not recognizing the value and worth of their opinion, thus reducing the political other to a form of evilness that is likely not intended by the person’s political beliefs. It is contrary to the notion of true recognition that “involves respecting the dignity and equal worth of every person and valuing their contributions, or at least their potential contributions, to the larger community.”

When we opt to not recognize the worth or value of the other’s opinion, especially in terms of political thought, then we exclude them from relationship and fellowship. To understand this deeper, we must come to a definition and application of what it truly means to exclude someone. Volf argues that “exclusion takes place when the violence of expulsion, assimilation, or subjugation and the indifference of abandonment replaces the dynamics of taking in and keeping out as well as the mutuality of giving and receiving.”

Exclusion, Volf writes, has two central ideas. First, it cuts off bonds that connect us to one another, and second, it creates separation among people, especially among the body of Christ.

In attacking other Christians simply because they believe that the health care law is unconstitutional or that capital punishment is inconsistent with God’s call to forgiveness of our enemies, we exclude and create boundaries that limit the potential for dialogue and communication. Even more, when we exclude, we prevent the true message of Christ’s love to be revealed in our daily actions.

It is our language that promotes exclusion of the other based on their political thought. This is mainly through our emotional responses to the beliefs of the other. These are emotional responses that range “from hatred to indifference” and “call forth emotional responses and are sustained by them.”

When we get challenged in our political thoughts, our emotional responses to this disagreement define how we see the other. They are no longer a child of God created in God’s image, but instead a supposed vile representation of the worst form of evil which no good could ever come from. This is also carried forward in the way we spin our messages. Volf argues that sometimes we “rewrite the histories and fabricate injuries in order to manufacture hatreds.”

The language of exclusion exists here when we spin our messages to focus on negative aspects of the other, then argue the worst possible outcome because of that message. We’ve seen this recently in how some Christians argue that President Obama is a Muslim, even though he has repeatedly said he is Christian. In arguing this, some Christians are attempting to make the inappropriate and unfortunate claim that President Obama is not like us, and, in its worst possible form, could lead some to connect Obama to the worst forms of Islam, simply because they do not agree with his political viewpoints.

While the language of exclusion is a problem in this issue of attacking one’s political thought, so too is the issue of assimilation. Volf argues that assimilation results in an argument where “[y]ou can survive, even thrive, among us, if you become like us; you can keep your life, if you give up your identity.”

In terms of exclusion based on our beliefs or thoughts, we exclude the potential that the body of Christ can include other viewpoints and applications of the Gospel in the world. While we do not deny basic truths or basic doctrines, there are multiple ways that Scripture can be applied, especially in terms of the political realm. The body of Christ can have multiple views and many parts when it comes to politics.

But when we exclude based on assimilation, we make a deal with the political other.

That is, you can be in fellowship with us, but only if you represent our conservative political views or liberal political views. We exclude the potential that someone may come at Scripture and have a different way of thinking.

We also exclude simply by abandoning the potential for dialogue with someone with whom we may disagree. Volf uses the line of thought from the story of the Good Samaritan to claim that “we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business.”

Instead of entering into a relationship with someone, we keep a safe distance. For example, if we believe that there is nothing good or wholesome about the Tea Party movement, we are less willing to engage or to enter a relationship with someone that ascribe to Tea Party beliefs. We place barriers and keep them “at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them.”

This is not an acceptable form of barrier. In the early church, barriers of hospitality were only allowed based on false teaching or immoral actions.

To close off dialogue and abandon communication because one may have a different point of view hinders the body of Christ from being fully accepting and welcoming of all and from truly teaching the full breadth of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Why do we exclude on the basis of political thought? Perhaps it is because at the root of the discussion, we have to be the one who is right. It is our political viewpoint, our application of Christian thought, that must win the day, and in the eyes of that competitive viewpoint, we exclude the potential that we could be wrong or others may have a different views.

We – our version of what is right and wrong, and our ideas and application of those ideas – become the ultimate center of our reality. Instead of having the mind of Christ and being centered on Christ’s humility and passion, we become centered on being on the right side of the political debate.

Our center is focused being aligned with the virtues of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party instead of the Risen Lord, which Volf argues is our true center.

Thus, exclusion comes because we are not focused on the right things and have allowed ourselves to be determined more by the world’s standards than a Christian ethic of what is right or wrong. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon add to this, saying, “It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.”

Historical and Future Examples of Exclusion Based on Political Thought

While we have analyzed the issue of the political attacks that can occur among Christians based on the lens of exclusion, it is proper to turn to a historical reflection of the issue. It would be easy to think of the issue of political exclusion within the church based on one’s viewpoint to be a recent issue brought on by the days of 24-hour cable news shows and the Internet. Yet television and the Internet only stand on the shoulders of what has been a long history of exclusion based on ones political views within the church. Even John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, noted the struggle that some have towards others who may not think like we do.

This section will give a brief history, including recent examples, of elements of exclusion based on political thought which has taken place, concluding with a look at where this issue may be heading.

It is perhaps best to start with an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, which has often driven the notion that politics is to remain in its corner and religion in the other corner. The First Amendment writes that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

While there is debate on what was intended by the Founding Fathers in this First Amendment, some, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, have argued that it places a barrier on religious involvement in the public square. This idea promotes, in a secular way, the ideas established by St. Augustine that there is an earthly kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.

When taken into the context of how we interact with politics, we believe that our faith and our politics are separate from one another, thus giving us freedom to act one way in the political world and another in the church.

This can be seen in some of the most historic elections in American presidential history. It is perhaps appropriate to include a discussion of the 1828 presidential election, which has often been viewed as one of the dirtiest in American presidential history.

Both John Adams and Andrew Jackson claimed some Christian affiliation in their lives, but did not let the mind of Christ influence their campaign rhetoric. Jackson claimed that Adams was a pimp during his time in Russia, while Adams claimed that Jackson’s wife was promiscuous, at best, for not being divorced before marrying him.

Similar other attacks marred the campaign, which was won by Jackson. These attacks did not represent an ethic of Christ working in their life, nor did it show care or respect for the other. Instead, these comments were perpetrated by a deep dislike and distrust for each other, which impacted how they campaigned in 1828.

In more recent history, we’ve seen how politics and one’s religious preference can keep Christian voters from voting for a certain candidate, even though that candidate may have the same views as the individual. This was true in 1960 and in 2008. In 1960, many Americans had trouble with the notion of electing then-Sen. John F. Kennedy as president because of his Catholicism. Thus, many Christians and Americans excluded Kennedy from having a claim to the presidency simply because he was not a Protestant. In a famous speech, Kennedy responded to this form of exclusion. He said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish.”

While Kennedy was able to overcome this form of exclusion and went on to defeat then-Vice President Richard Nixon, the same cannot be said of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and his Mormon beliefs. Many people, including many evangelical Christians, disqualified him simply because he was a Mormon.

It is outside the realm of this paper to discuss the truthfulness of the Mormon faith and its relationship to Christianity. However, in light of Romney’s defeat in the Republican primary in 2008, it could be argued that Romney was excluded from interacting with other like-minded conservatives simply because of his religious beliefs, especially among Christians. As Christians, we are not responsible for the actions or beliefs of others, but for our own response.

The recently-completed 2010 election also gives examples to these ideas of exclusion and political attacks among Christians based on one’s political thoughts. In what became a very polarized election, representative of an ever-widening polarization of political parties,

the election year marked vitriolic campaign rhetoric which impacted both the Religious Right and the Religious Left. It is a polarization that began long before the Tea Party Movement and Glenn Beck dominated headlines. The polarization between these two political camps within the Christian movement was established with the creation of the Moral Majority by Jerry Falwell.

The group, which promoted conservative political views from a religious standpoint, helped elect President Reagan in 1980 and President George W. Bush in 2000 and  2004. But it also led to a polarization within Christianity among those who did not agree with Falwell’s tactics or views. Among those was Jim Wallis, whose Sojourners organization was created to be a progressive voice in the political debate. Wallis has written that “our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back. In particular, an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place.”

It is from this point of polarization that the exclusion, inhospitality and attacks among Christians that took place in 2010 gets its start. Few Christians who are active in the political arena were spared from taking on personal attacks in the defense of their personal political views. This included Wallis, who took on Beck and the Tea Party movement throughout the year,

got into a war of words with Beck and FOX News,

and, sadly, suggested a reporter was lying for reporting that Sojourners took money from liberal campaign funder George Soros.

Wallis had to apologize when it was learned that Soros had contributed money to the organization.

While this is just one example, and there were many more that were much worse, it is representative of the fact that defensiveness often takes place, even among Christians, in relationship to political thought.

Where is the trend moving? What is the future for the church with regard to potentially excluding others based on political thought? In 2012, President Obama will be up for re-election, and the country continues to be polarized on the subject of politics, especially within the church. If we – as the living representation of the body of Christ – do not come to a recognition of our language and actions of exclusion of the other and continue to claim that Christians can only have my political view, then we will continue to see a fractured body of many parts unconnected and not unified by the Risen Lord. We will continue to limit welcome to only those who are like us and think like us, and miss the opportunity to engage and learn from others. And, even more potentially harmful, we will continue to give those outside the Christian faith fewer reasons as to why they would want to communion with Christians or learn what it means to follow Christ.

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